Timothy Murray and Alice Chung performed a scene from “Hamlet” in the Merola Opera Program’s finale on Aug. 17 at the War Memorial Opera House. (Courtesy Kristen Loken)

Up-and-coming Merola singers fill Opera House stage

Powerful students sound like professionals in program finale

It’s fun to keep score at the annual Merola Grand Finale, to keep tabs on performers one hopes to see again on the War Memorial Opera House stage in San Francisco.

Saturday night’s show in the huge hall — the culmination of the 62nd Merola Opera Program, an intensive summer training session whose 29 students were selected from 800 international applicants — excellently showcased stars of the future.

With strong, clear voices, some of the singers sounded as professional as the top stars already at home at San Francisco Opera (which opens a run of Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd” on Sept. 7 ).

The bold “Billy Budd” set, invoking a massive warship, was an eye-catching backdrop to the solos and ensembles, opening with mezzo-soprano Cara Collins and soprano Anna Dugan as Octavian and The Marschallin from Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” to the close, a vivacious ensemble joining for “The world is a farce and man is born a fool” from Verdi’s “Falstaff.”

In between, there were many highlights: Baritone Laureano Quant was beautifully anguished in love as Riccardo from Bellini’s “I Puritani”; also notable were tenor Brandon Scott Russell’s Prince from Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” and soprano Amber Monroe and mezzo soprano Alice Chung as the pious nuns from Poulenc’s “Dialogues des Carmelites.”

Soprano Esther Tonea (who was excellent in the summer Merola premiere of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s “If I Were You”) dazzled as Fiordiligi from Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” and soprano Chelsea Lehnea showed power as Queen Elizabeth contemplating killing her cousin Mary Stuart in Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda.”

The concert’s second act offered more delights: Soprano Elisa Sunshine was fun, feisty and powerful hanging with the soldiers in Donizetti’s “La fille du regiment” (“The Daughter of the Regiment”), while soprano Hyeree Shin was truly lovely in Mozart’s lesser-known “La finta giardiniera” (“The Pretend Garden-Girl”).

In contrast, baritone Tim Murray and mezzo soprano Chung powerfully, dramatically packed a punch as Hamlet and his mother Gertrude from French composer Ambroise Thomas’ “Hamlet,” while soprano Patricia Westley shone as Nanetta in Verdi’s “Falstaff,” as did Edith Grossman as Hélène in Offenbach’s “La belle Hélène.”

The festive evening opened with brief comments from countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen. The 2016 Merolina alumnus, exemplifying the program’s many successes, said he was grateful for his experience, which has led to engagements with San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Portland Opera and others.

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